Too few residents, not enough traffic, scarcity of cheap parking . . . downtown can be hell for full-service restaurants. That's why smart operators know going in that they need to find a hook -- something interesting and sexy to pull in patrons who would otherwise stay in the suburbs. That can be just about anything: maybe a tie-in with big-name entertainment, as at House of Blues and Pickwick & Frolic. It could be a highly regarded chef, like Marlin Kaplan of One Walnut or Michael Symon of Lolita. Or it could simply be the time-tested trinity of TV, sports, and beer, as in the case of Winking Lizard and Cooper'stown.
Regardless of any restaurant's approach, though, one thing is certain: Without a compelling reason to come (or, in the case of office workers, to remain) downtown, potential customers are going to hole up close to home, spending their dining dollars at well-branded spots like Olive Garden and Champs.
Such were the deep thoughts that occupied us during a recent Saturday night at the Waterhouse, the most recent restaurant to try to prosper in the cavernous former Diamondback Brewery space between Prospect and Huron. (Previous short-term occupants have included Phil the Fire and Baron's.) As it happens, the Waterhouse proved the perfect spot for such quiet contemplation: When we arrived at 7:30 p.m., we were one of only three parties in the place; by 8:30, we had it entirely to ourselves.
Not that that was a bad thing, actually: After dining, we wandered down to the bar for coffee and a luscious gelato-and-crème-fraîche "martini" sided by a little chocolate-truffle "olive," watched the Indians trounce the Royals, shot the breeze with the bored but friendly staffers, and realized we'd had a pretty pleasant evening all the same.
Ten weeks after opening, though, the Waterhouse is still searching for its hook.
This identity crisis certainly doesn't stem from a lack of potential. Boomless business notwithstanding, the restaurant should have at least one built-in draw in the person of its executive chef, Adam Schmith. A Cleveland native and Johnson & Wales grad, Schmith gained experience with Doug Katz, during Katz's Moxie era, and with Kaplan at One Walnut.
For the Waterhouse, Schmith has developed a globally influenced menu, with a focus on seafood and fish, which samples freely from contemporary American, Asian, and Mediterranean cuisines. Ingredients are fresh, flavors are generally well structured, and nearly everything except the pasta is made on the premises. Equally groovy, most of the amply sized dinner entrées check in at $20 or less -- a bargain by downtown standards -- and service is provided by a crew of eager-to-please staffers.
Still, it's hard to escape the sense that when it comes to crafting an identity, the Waterhouse has thus far missed the boat. Despite the aspiring menu, for instance, the ambiance is anything but upscale. Your pothead buddy's dorm room made a louder stylistic statement than the Waterhouse's bland black-and-white decor, and grim lighting from fluorescent fixtures overhead does nothing to inject a shot of glam. And while white cloth napkins, hefty flatware, and substantial white dishware are appreciated, the absence of flowers or votive candles just solidifies the bargain-basement feel.
Despite its proximity to the Q and the Jake, the spot certainly wasn't designed with sports fans in mind. Televisions are restricted to the small lounge area; the culinary concept doesn't make room for burgers and wings; and despite the fact that former NFL player and Georgia resident Willie Clay is the restaurant's main money man, there's not a single scrap of sports paraphernalia in sight. (Change, in the form of more tellies and a laid-back bar menu, may be on the way, however.)
Nor is the Waterhouse an entertainment venue -- at least, not yet. Reportedly, there are plans to convert some of the labyrinthine upstairs space into a cigar lounge, private banquet rooms, and a performance stage, as well as possibly bring live entertainment into the main-floor lounge. But how much better for business, had all those amenities been ready to rumble when the doors first opened in June?
Such shortcomings aside, though, there is plenty to like about Schmith's menu, in dishes ranging from a quartet of plump, lemony lobster-and-crab fritters, beribboned with creamy lemon-garlic aioli and garnished with a flounce of baby lettuces, to an indecently delicious version of classic crème brûlée, so vulnerable and silken beneath its fragile burnt-sugar crust that tucking into it felt almost like a violation.
In fact, while Schmith is still tinkering with the lineup -- and some dishes could clearly profit from more precision -- we didn't come across anything that was on the wrong track. Among starters, for instance, tuna Napoleon and carpaccio "sushi" both traveled down the familiar Asian-fusion pathway with reasonable success. The first -- four bite-sized pieces of barely seared tuna stacked up with crunchy fried-wonton chips -- got extra kick from a zesty Asian slaw, slathered in a spicy-sweet dressing of honey, soy, sesame, and chiles. And while the unconventional flavors of the second tidbit -- a standard-looking maki roll, scantily stuffed with thinly sliced raw tenderloin, roasted red pepper, blue cheese, and portobello -- were pretty much indistinguishable from the rice, it was an intriguing concept that could be easily improved.
During a weekday lunch visit (the restaurant's busiest time), a dolled-up quesadilla filled with crab, langostino, Monterey Jack, and chopped tomato confidently strode the line between savor and sass; and a trio of basil, chile, and caper aiolis, on the side, also came in handy to ignite a slightly dry yellowfin tuna burger, sided with dainty but addictive homemade potato chips. And as a final choice, a baby spinach salad, tossed with spiced walnuts, blue cheese, cherry tomatoes, and a subtle champagne vinaigrette, made a virtuous lunch for a vegetarian companion -- at least until he discovered some bits of fried prosciutto in it. (Our server took the offending salad off our bill; during a later conversation, Schmith swore the upscale Bac-O's got there by accident.)
Among pasta options, three-cheese ravioli proved firm and elastic, although a few more dollops of the sweet tomato-basil sauce would not have been amiss. Luxuriating in a creamy garlic sauce piqued with bits of blue cheese, spiced walnuts, and some crumbs of prosciutto, the herbed gnocchi were a winner too, with an intense rush of flavors and a palate-pleasing interplay of textures.
An entrée of five medium-sized pan-seared sea scallops, however -- fresh, flavorful, but slightly overcooked -- proved tedious, mostly because it was dominated by gobs of sticky risotto. A side of freshly cooked green beans would have added refreshing counterpoint. Instead, we got a little tangle of julienned veggie threads and a splash of juicy tomato-basil vinaigrette, and while both were OK, they lacked the firepower to bring the dish into balance.
On the other hand, a perfectly roasted demi-chicken, piqued with rosemary and almost absurdly succulent, was a sock-rocker, with the natural juices and a sweet mandarin-orange sauce combining to add distinctive flavors to the rice pilaf that anchored the plate. Hearty, homey, and satisfying, it was the kind of meal that would have made Mom proud.
Speaking of Mom, she would approve of the Waterhouse's unassuming wine list too. A collection of around 100 domestic and imported labels, every bottle is priced at a flat $20. Not that this results in any stunning bargains. A quick survey of the lower shelves of our neighborhood wine store confirmed that most of the bottles retail for between $8 (for an Alice White Shiraz) to $13 (for a Hess Select Chardonnay); still, for 20 bucks, all but the most presumptuous wine geek should find something here to enjoy.
It's not a big hook. But until the identity issue gets resolved, let's hope it will do.
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